Criterion Sunday 531: The Docks of New York (1928)

Sternberg’s last surviving silent film reaches a feverish peak that he would sustain over his next run of sound films starring Marlene Dietrich. It conjures the atmosphere of the titular location, beautifully using light and shadow, smoke and fog, and gliding camerawork. The actors are pretty great too, with George Bancroft giving his ship’s stoker character, Bill, a burly menace softened by his evident warmth of feeling towards Betty Compson’s suicidal prostitute Mae. There’s a generosity towards both characters, a lack of moral judgement, and the drama is in whether Bill will overcome his compulsion to fulfil the manly archetype he seems to hold of the sweaty stoker committed to his backbreaking labour, and whether Mae is willing to accept the possibility of a better life for herself. It’s all fairly compact and stays focused on the poetic evocation of this setting, doing a beautiful job of capturing what ultimately is a romance — and a hopeful one at that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writer Jules Furthman (from the story “The Dock Walloper” by John Monk Saunders); Cinematographer Harold Rosson; Starring George Bancroft, Betty Compson; Length 75 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 7 March 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, July 2000).

Criterion Sunday 530: The Last Command (1928)

Emil Jannings won the very first Best Actor Academy Award for this performance (though actually, in this first Oscars ceremony, actors could be nominated for multiple roles, so technically it was not just for this film). Looking back in retrospect, it can be difficult to judge whether such awards were justified. After all, as is typical of the silent era, there’s a lot of gestural and facial work that seems to modern film viewers rather broad and a little lacking in subtlety. But if you get through those (which come partly from the wordless form, and are partly typical of just the style of acting prevalent at the time), you can see at the core there is indeed something rather fascinatingly complex about Jannings’ work here.

Himself a lauded German actor (as in Murnau films like The Last Laugh), Jannings here plays a grand Russian military figure, perhaps the most senior after the Tsar, fighting desperately against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution of 1917. Finding sympathy here is no natural task — the Tsarist forces aren’t exactly on the side of the people, and as far as I understand from history, America was hardly as virulently anti-revolutionary and anti-Communist back then as it later became — but Jannings and director Sternberg achieve something similar to what Renoir was doing in France: evoking empathy for those relics of history like Jannings’ military man. Along the way he pulls out all kinds of camerawork that has a vibrancy and lightness to it, with movement and momentum matching those of the characters, which would take a while for cinema to regain in the sound era. It’s a film that looks forward to some of Sternberg’s masterpieces of the sound era with Marlene Dietrich, a blend of European and brash American sensibility that’s quite enticing. Plus there’s a young William Powell as a revolutionary turned film director in the framing story.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writers John F. Goodrich and Herman J. Mankiewicz (from a story by Lajos Biró); Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Emil Jannings, Evelyn Brent, William Powell; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 28 February 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, June 2000).

Criterion Sunday 529: Underworld (1927)

Josef von Sternberg’s silent crime movie is generally considered to be the one that laid in place a lot of the tropes that would persist (and continue to do so) in gangster films over the years. We have the gregarious mobster “Bull Weed” (George Bancroft) who shows pity on the alcoholic “Rolls Royce” (Clive Brook), helping him to clean up and work again as a lawyer, in which role he’s able to help Bull while also getting close to Bull’s girl “Feathers” (Evelyn Brent), a classic three-way love story that motivates the divided loyalties of the film’s climactic shoot-out with police (because there’s always got to be a shoot-out). Despite being pre-Code, there are still strong moral lessons that bad guys need to learn, but the film keeps what now comes across as pretty hackneyed content relatively fresh. The camera doesn’t move too much, but somehow the film gives the impression of a whirl of action and movement, with pools of murky darkness befitting the setting. In short, it still holds up.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writers Ben Hecht, Charles Furthman and Robert N. Lee; Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Clive Brook, Evelyn Brent, George Bancroft; Length 81 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 21 February 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, June 2000).

Criterion Sunday 526: 父ありき Chichi Ariki (There Was a Father, 1942)

Another gentle Ozu film from a rather more difficult period in history, this is matched with his earlier The Only Son by the Criterion Collection, and they do seem to share a fair number of similarities, being about children raised by single parents. In this case, it’s a single father (Ozu stalwart Chishu Ryu) who has rather abandoned his son in order to earn money to support him, so it’s only a brief period of time that the son visits the father when he’s grown up. The film charts a certain amount of regret on both parts, as well as the rather bereft lives both have had living apart and not really knowing one another well. Perhaps one can see grander political allegories in this relationship, given the time when the film was made, but Ozu isn’t keen to emphasise any such reading. But it’s a film about one’s responsibility to the next generation at a time when you imagine such a message might have landed a little differently. It is also, as you might expect, excellently acted and it’s only sad that the quality of the film elements isn’t particularly superb.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Tadao Ikeda 池田忠雄, Ozu and Takao Anai 柳井隆雄; Cinematographer Yushun Atsuta 厚田雄治; Starring Chishu Ryu 笠智衆, Shuji Sano 佐野周二; Length 87 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 31 January 2022.

Criterion Sunday 525: 一人息子 Hitori Musuko (The Only Son, 1936)

Ozu’s later works are among some of my favourite films and it’s probably fair to say that a lot of the elements in his style were already in place by the time of this, his first sound film. He punctuates shots with images of socks and linen fluttering in the breeze in neatly-arranged rows, a clean organisation that belies the relative poverty the characters live in, and those tatami mat shots are very much in evidence. I also think his attitude to his characters is already fairly complexly laid out: the disappointment of the mother (Choko Iida) in her son (Himori Shin’ichi) is something she buries pretty deeply and when she does express it and try to find some way to accept her son’s life (which is, outwardly, pretty happy despite his lowly career), she is still left with a pain inside, expressed via a final shot. These emotional resonances are largely not expressed via dialogue, and that method of hiding sadness behind a smile is something Ozu would do a lot in his films with Setsuko Hara. Still, for some reason I find it difficult to embrace the film and I don’t think it’s just the slightly indifferent preservation of the elements (there’s a lot of noise on the image and soundtrack). Perhaps it’s the insistency with which the big city is seen as a corrupting influence (but then again the mother is struggling just as hard out in the countryside, having lost her family home), or perhaps I just feel out of step with the moral quandaries — though again I don’t think the mother’s internal struggle is impossible to imagine today. Still, it marks a step on the way to some of cinema’s greatest films.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Tadao Ikeda 池田忠雄 and Masao Arata 荒田正男; Cinematographer Shojiro Sugimoto 杉本正次郎; Starring Choko Iida 飯田蝶子, Himori Shin’ichi 日守新一, Yoshiko Tsubouchi 坪内美子, Chishu Ryu 笠智衆; Length 82 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 25 January 2022.

Criterion Sunday 523: Night Train to Munich (1940)

This British film, made near the outset of World War II, certainly seems to aspire to that Lubitsch touch, and if it doesn’t quite succeed it still has a daffy charm. After all, I can’t fully take against any film that treats Nazis as quite this contemptible and foolish (there’s even a lovely moment where a guard has been gagged with a copy of Mein Kampf, a neat visual metaphor of sorts), even if apparently Rex Harrison did enjoy wearing the uniform a little bit too much. He has a dashing presence that makes up for Margaret Lockwood, who has that prim quality so beloved of wartime films, and the cast is rounded out by some fine turns, including a reappearance for the cricket-loving fuddy-duddies first seen in The Lady Vanishes (penned by the same writers). It’s very English in that way of the period, but ultimately its heart is in the right place and so it’s a fun ride.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Carol Reed; Writers Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder (based on the short story “Report on a Fugitive” by Gordon Wellesley); Cinematographer Otto Kanturek; Starring Margaret Lockwood, Rex Harrison, Paul Henreid [as “Paul von Hernreid”]; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 9 April 2022.

Criterion Sunday 516: Stagecoach (1939)

It’s pretty difficult to watch any classic movie with fresh eyes and I can’t pretend that I did that here. It’s a film I’ve seen before screened in a film class, and it has that patina of ‘classic’ that is pretty difficult to move past at times, especially as it’s been emulated so often in succeeding years, such that it’s difficult in my mind for me to think about old Westerns without thinking about a bunch of characters sharing a coach across dangerous frontier territory controlled by Native American raiding parties. That last part is of course the bit that has aged the least well, and the most I can say for it is that at least the Native Americans aren’t played by white guys in heavy makeup, a small consolation for what is still a pretty thankless part of old Westerns. However, that central chamber drama between the various passengers is played out remarkably well, and John Wayne still looks young and fresh-faced as a ne’er-do-well looking to reform himself and settle down. John Ford was a veteran director even by 1939, and he controls it all beautifully well, without flashiness but with plenty of clear vision as to what’s most effective on the screen. Well worth watching again, and perhaps I’ll try and see this on a big screen before another 20 years passes.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Ford; Writer Dudley Nichols (based on the short story “The Stage to Lordsburg” by Ernest Haycox); Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Claire Trevor, John Wayne, George Bancroft, Andy Devine, Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 13 March 2022 (and earlier on VHS at university, Wellington, May 2000).

Criterion Sunday 515: The Fugitive Kind (1960)

Initially there’s plenty to really dig here, not least the moody, highly-contrasted black-and-white cinematography, little shards of light illuminating faces as Brando’s rebellious kid trying to go straight in his 30s comes up against the usual kinds of corrupt Southern lawmakers who just want him out of their town. That’s in truth where the film starts to drag a bit, as the melodrama builds to a pitch and Joanne Woodward’s drunken girl gets into scrapes while Anna Magnani suffers her brutal bed-ridden husband’s anger with stoic suffering. There are a lot of clichés of the Southern gothic genre being bandied around here, and they could lend a hothouse atmosphere if you’re in the mood for that, but by the film’s end they seemed a little wearying, as if working against the film’s better senses. The stage origins are clear and so too are the classical metaphors, as a bunch of characters all play around in the apparent Hades that is the Jim Crow South, including a magical African-American character to silently observe the goings on.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Sidney Lumet; Writers Meade Roberts and Tennessee Williams (based on Williams’s play Orpheus Descending); Cinematographer Boris Kaufman Бори́с Ка́уфман; Starring Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, Joanne Woodward, Victor Jory, Maureen Stapleton; Length 121 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 6 March 2022.

Criterion Sunday 512: Vivre sa vie: film en douze tableaux (aka My Life to Live, 1962)

I have of course seen this Godard film many times before (and written about it far more eloquently in the past than I can muster now) but it may be my favourite of Godard’s oeuvre. It limns the concerns of the contemporary 1960s world to something self-consciously archaic in cinema, using intertitles (the chapter headings for this most structural of films, composed as the subtitle says, in 12 tableaux), gorgeous black-and-white close-ups of Anna Karina’s face (not to mention the back of her head), and of course those images of Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. But beyond that, it’s a film that deals with his eternal theme of capitalism, using the figure of Karina’s Nana as a way into a morally murky world. Nobody really ends up in a good place — shades of Breathless at the end — but the story of Nana’s falling into prostitution as a line of work and then into love (not a line of work) is almost sidelined by an aesthetic interest in the image. Indeed it’s very easy to miss the film’s ostensible plot, but also very easy (and equally pleasurable) just to look at the film as a series of tableaux vivants.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Anna Karina; Length 83 minutes.

Seen at university library (VHS), Wellington, October 1998 and June 2000 (later on DVD at home, London, Wednesday 14 August 2013, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Monday 7 February 2022).

Criterion Sunday 505: Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

I guess the Tokyo Story comparisons are obvious — it clearly is an inspiration on that film (Ozu loved his American melodramas, as is clear enough from film posters that show up in his early films) — although stylistically it’s rather different of course, but it hits just as hard in many ways. There’s a lightly comedic way it has of setting up its characters and their situations, and then when the families get to fussing and arguing, it could be straight out of 50s Sirk or 70s Fassbinder in the bitter undercurrents, the glances shared between the elderly mother’s son and daughter-in-law, the wearied sighs and desperate attempts to shift the burden of care amongst one another. But actually it’s the kindness that strangers and even sometimes family show one another that makes it most difficult to take, because nobody here is trying to be horrible or difficult, and the way the elderly couple at the film’s centre are forced apart is almost inevitable once it begins. They do get one last chance to revisit their youth and their love, but by the time the train trip beckons, there’s an overwhelming sorrow that puts it firmly among even the Criterion releases that precede it (films like Germany Year Zero and Hunger). Somehow even the sentimentality and humour makes it even more bleakly relatable, because tomorrow is always coming, and at an ever faster pace.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Leo McCarey; Writer Viña Delmar (based on the play by Helen Leary and Noah Leary, itself based on the novel The Years Are So Long by Josephine Lawrence); Cinematographer William C. Mellor; Starring Beulah Bondi, Victor Moore, Thomas Mitchell, Fay Bainter; Length 92 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 6 February 2022.